Castle rising was my first castle. I’m Australian, where castles are few and far between sadly. I’d been studying medieval history for years when I finally made it to the UK in 2012 and, after Cambridge, Ely and Bury St Edmonds (all castleless), we arrived at Castle Rising. It’s a curiously domestic little castle, compared to some of the behemoths that I was to see over the coming months, but it has a fascinating history and I’ll always have a soft spot for it as my first real medieval castle. I’ve actually written about it before as part of my advent calendar of medieval castles. You can see it here, but this post is going to have more detail and a lot more photos.
Castle Rising is in the village of Castle Rising, in Norfolk just out of King’s Lynn. It was built for William d’Albini the Earl of Arundel in c.1140. It was built in the reign of King Stephen, but may not have been a reaction to the Period of Anarchy as many of its contemporaries were. Castle Rising was definitely a castle built for defence, the massive earthworks you can see in the image below attest to this.
However, it was as much a symbol and an expression of d’Albini’s wealth and status. It is also possible it was built for his new wife Adeliza of Louvain who was the widow of Henry I and as a former queen would have been used to luxury. It was in Castle Rising that d’Albini would have entertained his friends and followers and held his honourial court for the region. The elaborate surviving decoration (especially the external decoration) in the keep shows how seriously he took this. Castle Rising was never intended primarily for defence and conquest as many of the earlier Norman Castles, and arguably Henry II’s later simple stone keeps were.
The keep itself is also unusually shaped, it’s almost cube like rather than the more stark straight military towers you see with other keeps. The keep is 15 m high and almost 21 m across on the narrower side. It would have probably been taller originally when the towers were complete.
Much of the structure of the keep is intact so you can have a reasonable idea of how it would have been used. You would have approached over a guarded bridge and the entrance to the keep is on the second story, which you would would have reached by climbing well defended stairs.
You would have then reached the great hall. The pictures below give you an idea of the great hall. In the first you can see the post holes where floor would have been. The final picture shows what it would have looked like from this floor level. The area below this absent floor would have been the basement, used primarily for storage.
Unusually the kitchens were also on the second floor.
You could also access the lord’s chamber
And the private chapel, which you can see me sitting in below (looking very pleased at my first ever castle)
The keep is not the only building on the site, with the remains of an 11th century church that actually predates the castle. It is partly buried by the earthworks.
The d’ Albini family died out in the 13th century and Castle Rising passed into the Montalt family. The Montalt family died out in the 14th century and Castle Rising came into royal hands. It was after this that the castle entered what is probably its best known phase when it became the residence of Queen Isabella, known as the she wolf of England. She was the Queen of Edward II and many argue she had a role in his murder. It has been argued that Castle Rising was her prison, ordered there by her son Edward III, but it is also just as possible that it was the residence she chose in exile. There were certainly buildings erected for her in the grounds of the castle. There are little in evidence today, but excavations have shown; general lodgings, a chapel, hall and kitchen. You can see what is most likely the remains of the chapel below.
Castle Rising ultimately came into the hands of the Howard family who still own and manage it today. Castle Rising might not have played a grand role on any political stage in its history, but it is a truly lovely castle to explore and the detail that remains gives you a sense of a real place that was actually lived in.
Site visit 2012
One of the fun things about writing this post was that it gave me the chance to dig out several of my castle books, and some of them are rather lovely so I thought I’d include a visual bibliography.
All the photos are mine.